Street art is nothing new. Painting directly on walls as a form of social commentary has been around for about 35,000 years with arguably the earliest known cave paintings being discovered in Sulawesi, Indonesia. What is new though is that while it has taken thousands of years for cave paintings to go from hidden and obscure to preserved and protected, the history of street art has gone from dark alleys and subversive to tour-worthy and popular in a few short decades. Post graffiti, urban art or whatever you want to collectively call murals, stencils, prints and graffiti produced on the street, has been discovered as being ground-breaking in its own lifetime.
Now, in major cities all around the world, an industry has been created by the public demand to get up close and personal to street art. People aren’t just buying tickets to see what’s hanging on the walls inside the Louvre, they’re actually paying to be taken on a tour of what’s adorning the streets outside for free. And if they’re lucky, their guide might even be one of the artists whose art is on the wall they’re looking at. While we hope there’s exciting things going on in even the smallest of villages of the most remote countries, here are some of the best street art walks happening in big towns across the globe (we’re not even going to mention Bristol, because we know you know Banksy). Don’t miss the chance to incorporate one into your travels…
Let’s start with the big one. Now we’re not necessarily saying that London has the most prolific street art scene and it certainly wasn’t the first (just like Hip Hop, it’s a New York import). What makes it a little different here is how the public has taken street art under its wing. What once was officially condemned, and required the British Transport Authority to dispense a fully-fledged graf squad to prevent the spread and capture the criminals back in the 80s, is now all grown up and loved by the public. Some of those original illegal bombers are now contemporary artists and the popularity of the art form may have diluted some of its impact and effectiveness. But while it might have become mainstream to enjoy street art and even commission it, there is still a slice of society that sees it as the scourge of our urban environment.
See it: For a tour of London Street Art check out Street Art London who curate, exhibit and document London street art.
The gold and apartheid that once kept black South Africans segregated in ghettos on the fringes of Johannesburg now serves as a reason to reunite. Expressing their cultural history and modern transformation through paint and paste-ups on walls, underpasses, and power stations from Newtown to Soweto to Maboneng to Downtown, Joberg’s street artists have something to say and a city who will listen. The City of Gold Urban Art Festival provides an international platform for local artists and by 2040 Johannesburg aims to be the biggest urban art city in the world (currently there are about 460 official works). This is a city to see.
See it: For a tour of Johannesburg Street Art check out Past Experiences who can even book a street artist to guide you.
Just like the city and its inhabitants, the Melbourne street art scene is eclectic and has one of the most diverse representations of the art form in the world. This vibrancy is thanks in part to the public and city councils who support and embrace it, making it a very active scene. Although street art in Melbourne has its roots in New York City-style graffiti adopted by disaffected youth living along train lines, it has evolved to include forms of woodblocking, stickers and graphs as well as innovating the stencil medium. An interesting feature of Melbourne street art is reverse graffiti where high pressure hoses are used on dirty surfaces to reveal negative space – for this reason the style is referred to as clean or green graffiti.
See it: Take a tour of Melbourne Street Art with Melbourne Street Tours who will teach you about both the technical and political aspects of street art and how to decide which messages constitute art, culminating in a visit to the famous Blender Studios.
The Berlin Wall is synonymous with graffiti. For years this fence dividing East and West served as a canvas for freedom of expression and the art produced on it questioned that very freedom. The free West Berliners were at once protected and restricted by the wall and the repressed East Berliners were both shut out by the wall, yet able to move freely in surrounding East Germany. The multiple ironies made great fodder for artistic expression and imagine what happened when the wall came down. Suddenly people that had been separated wanted to ask questions, get answers and start a conversation. This is one of the defining qualities of street art in Berlin – ideas that provoke a dialogue between the artist and the audience like the classic Linda’s Ex series.
See it: For a tour of Berlin Street Art check out Alternative Berlin who will also help you make your own artwork. You may even see an artist at work on the street.
Street art in Penang came about as a government sanctioned initiative rather than a rebellion. Keen to reinvigorate the streets of George Town, in 2012 the Penang Island City Council commissioned London-trained Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic, to paint a number of large scale murals that capture the humour and history of the island. It worked. They’ve become so popular that people queue up to have their photo taken with them (this is Asia), and it generated so much tourism that the council commissioned more tongue in cheek illustrations and steel rod works to decorate the streets. While the street art here doesn’t have the same tension you might see in urban art that is motivated by socio-political statements, it’s worth checking out for that reason.
See it: For a tour of Penang Street Art check out Penang Global Tourism’s website and self-guide yourself!
Some would say that New York is where it all started. Gangs back in the 1920s and 30s would scrawl messages on train carts and walls in an early form of what eventually became graffiti in the 1970s and 80s. This was the defining era for street art because people had a lot to say about social, economic and political suffering and no place to say it. The urban environment provided the canvas and a subculture was born. Zephyr, Blade and Lady Pink initiated many styles here and it’s also where Phase 2 created the instantly recognisable bubble-letter style of graffiti. Artists like Fab Five Freddy and Jean-Michel Basquiat (one half of SAMO), famously transcended the streets and made their way into other genres. Starting out in the Bronx and Washington Heights, there was a political push to clean up and eradicate graffiti in the streets in the late 1980s and 90s, and street art then made its way over the Brooklyn Bridge and can now be seen in Bushwick and Williamsburg.
See it: For a tour of New York City Street Art check out Street Art Walk and discover the mediums of paste-ups, stencils, murals, left objects and of course, graffiti.
Just like the Brazilians themselves, Brazilian street art is colourful and full of emotion. In Sao Paulo, the availability of buildings slated for demolition, and a lot of concrete surfaces making up the urban landscape, provide the perfect backdrop for plein air expression. From population density to traffic congestion to poverty to class conflict, local artists have no shortage of subjects to meditate on and it’s almost always handled in a thought provoking way.
See it: For a tour of Sao Paulo Street Art check out Jungle who provide a self-guided tour.
Last but not least there is Paris. No art-form could be complete without the participation of the French. In fact, the street art scene in Paris has been surprisingly trailblazing for a city where you might expect more conservative notions about what constitutes art to prevent it from flourishing. This is where the French Revolution took place after all, so there is a history of opinions being expressed here. While New York counterparts were getting on with lettering and spray cans, the style in Paris dating from the 1960s was more about posters and wheatpaste, and deconstructing or reinventing existing posters. There was still subway art, with site specific pieces popping up on the Paris Metro by Daniel Burren in the 1970s. Then in 1981, stenciling, an application used in Mussolini-era Fascist propaganda art, was repurposed by Blek le Rat. It’s a style now made famous by contemporary street artist, Banksy. These days, Paris is still pioneering different styles of street art like the tiled mosaics by Invader.
See it: To take a tour of Paris Street Art check out Street Art Paris who will even give you an overview on the importance and origins of tagging.
In the words of Shepard Fairey, “When you walk down the street and see something in a crazy spot, there's something powerful about that. The street will always be an important part of getting art out there for me.” So get those walking shoes on and pound that pavement in search of street art – you never know what you might find or who you might meet.